DETROIT — The Jeep Cherokee is back, with a surprising design that could win some new buyers but lose some old fans.
The 2014 Cherokee mid-
size SUV made its debut Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show. It replaces the Liberty, which replaced the original Cherokee several years ago, and joins Grand Cherokee in the lineup.
The Cherokee ditches Jeep’s traditional boxy look for a more aerodynamic style. It replaces the brand’s signature round headlights with sharply angled slits. The interior is plush and full of luxury options such as automatic parallel parking.
Even Jeep’s seven-slot grille didn’t go untouched – it’s much smaller and creased in the middle to fold over the nose.
All this isn’t sitting well with some Jeep fans, who say the 72-year-old brand is straying too far from its rugged, utilitarian roots. They bemoan the new styling and softer ride.
Chrysler Group, Jeep’s parent, acknowledges the design is polarizing. But Jeep needs to win back suburbanites who have spent a decade defecting to carlike, fuel-efficient competitors such as Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox and Toyota RAV4. Cherokee goes on sale this fall.
Jeep President and CEO Mike Manley said the Cherokee is a capable off-road vehicle that also performs well on pavement.
“It’s true to Jeep, but now will have all the attributes that those customers that may have bought an import brand, for example, or a different vehicle, have been looking for,” he said.
Automakers are under pressure to meet increasing fuel economy requirements. That explains the aerodynamic style and new nine-speed transmission.
The all-wheel-drive Liberty gets 22 mpg on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, making it one of the worst performers among midsize SUVs. The Cherokee will get up to 31 mpg on the highway.
Finally, Jeep needs the SUV to appeal to customers around the world, not just adventurous types. The Cherokee will be built in Toledo, Ohio, but exported to more than 150 countries, including China.
“We wanted a design that is fluid and efficient yet still rugged and looks at home on the trail or at the theater,” said Mark Allen, Jeep’s design chief.
The Cherokee first went on sale in 1974, when Jeep was owned by American Motors Corp. In 1984, AMC released a new Cherokee that was smaller and lighter than the original, essentially inventing the SUV.
The new model shares a car underbody with Fiat SpA, instead of a platform designed for off-roading. Still, a Trailhawk edition of the Cherokee carries Jeep’s “trail rated” badge, which means it can handle a series of challenging off-road conditions, including fording water.
Dave Sullivan, an analyst for the consulting firm AutoPacific, says the higher-priced, fully loaded versions of the Cherokee should be very capable, but he thinks the drastic redesign will cost Jeep some loyalists.
Jeep, like Toyota, has been successful partly because its design changes are usually subtle, Sullivan says. The two-door Jeep Wrangler, for instance, has changed little since it went on sale in 1987, but it’s by far the best-selling small SUV in the U.S.
“This is not an edgy brand. It should not be about spending money on outrageous design,” he said. “It’s all about the off-road design and capability.”